Born in Stockholm in 1965, Jan-Ove Waldner is a legend in his native Sweden as well as in China, where he is popularly known as “Elder Waldner” (“Lǎo Wǎ) or “Evergreen Tree” (“Cháng Qīng Shù”) due to his exceptional longevity and competitiveness as a global table tennis star. When he retired he had been playing at an elite international level for more than 30 years. He is the only person from a non-Asian country to win an Olympic table tennis gold medal (singles event in 1992), and he has also won World Championship and World Cup gold medals. Now a keen amateur golfer, he visits friends and plays regularly on the Costa del Sol.
What is your relationship with Spain and when did you first come here?
I have known Stefan (Tjellander – co-publisher of Andalucía Golf/España Golf) for many years and I also have some other friends who live in Marbella. I travel here two or three times a year to play golf.
We play mostly at Las Brisas and Los Naranjos, and sometimes at Valderrama and Sotogrande.
When did you begin playing golf?
I started quite late – I was over 30 – and it was because all the other guys in the national table tennis team were playing. On the days when we were practising, we’d play golf in the afternoon.
Does playing table tennis help you to play golf?
I think those of us in table tennis tend to be good from 100 metres to the green – at least that’s my best shot. Also bunker shots and the short game, but I’m a little stiff in my back so I’m not a long hitter.
Are there any similarities between playing golf and table tennis?
The ball is the same size (laughs). Table tennis is such a fast sport and in golf you have to wait a lot, but I think concentration is important in both. Also, I enjoy playing matches, because I’m used to that as a team player.
You have more time to think…
Yes, that is a problem in golf!
What is your current golf handicap?
I was down to seven but I’m up to 11.6 at the moment.
Why do you think so many people play golf in Sweden?
It’s very popular and also in the beginning, when I started, it was very cheap to play at a club, if you compare it to other countries. You could join as a member for €200 to €300. Also, for those of us who play indoor sports it’s very nice to be outside, when the weather is good – in summer it’s perfect. For people who play other ball sports, golf is very interesting. And then we have stars like Henrik Stenson and Alex Norén, who’s a friend of mine. However, it’s tough now as there are waiting lists. (Jan is a member of the Bro Hof club in Stockholm.)
Is table tennis popular in Sweden? How many table tennis players are there?
Not that many, 40,000. I was a commentator in Munich for the European championship (in August), and the main TV channel in Sweden broadcast 60 hours of table tennis for the week. This was very good for table tennis. During the best times for the sport it was very popular, and before us we had some top players. Interest waned a little but now it’s on the way up. One young player who is 20 years old was in the world championship final.
When did you start playing table tennis?
I was six years old, at a club in Stockholm – my grandfather played table tennis. In Sweden it is played all over the country. In schools, if you have 20 minutes of free time, everyone plays table tennis or soccer. And you could find table tennis tables all over Sweden before, so it was very popular.
You had some players who were quite good but not at the top level. If you ever do have a top player I think it’s going to become popular.
Yes, you need someone like Seve – he was one of my favourites for sure in golf. I’ve also been to the Ryder Cup, as an invited guest, with the European team, and played several times with Rory McIlroy. He was impressive, and Stenson is also good. Also Norén, who has practised with me.
Do you still play table tennis?
Yes, sometimes I play some exhibition matches, and I play once a week.
Would you and your wife buy a home in Spain?
Maybe, but I have friends here who I can stay with. I just have to pay for the drinks (laughs). I love Spain, and I think all Swedish people love to come here. The weather is fantastic.